Sal Khan, the founder of Khan Academy and the world’s most influential living teacher, has a serious point of view about how learning ought to work, including the role of teachers and technology. Is it time to listen more carefully?
Test results from national and state sources indicate that the pandemic clobbered learning progress just about everywhere. This is a big surprise to no one. Now that classes are back to normal, many hope that test scores will return to normal, too.
What a terrible goal.
At the 2022 Ed100 Academy for Student Leaders, Sal Khan addressed an audience of hundreds of high school student leaders about a bold vision for the future, based not on grades but on effective learning. Student leaders can play an important role in that future. Khan appeared in conversation with Alvin Lee, the founder of GENup, a growing organization of student leaders.
Sal Khan is one of the most recognized people on the planet, and arguably the most influential teacher since Aristotle and Confucius. The mission of Khan Academy is to provide a free, world‑class education for anyone, anywhere. For years, Khan Academy has produced video tutorials and practice materials to help students learn just about anything they want to know, especially if there is a class or credential associated with the subject.
Even as Khan has been producing online tools that help millions of students earn good grades, he has been arguing to anyone who will listen that grades aren’t really the point — or at least shouldn’t be. The point, he emphasizes, should be for each student to master subjects rather than just travel through them.
“In California, 65% of the students who go to the four-year Cal State system don't even place into college algebra. They're in this traditional system that just keeps promoting them, year in, year out. Maybe they get a 70. Maybe they squeak by with a D. Then they get to college. These are the kids who are trying to do everything right and the college is saying ‘wait, hold on, you have so many gaps in your knowledge you're not even ready to learn high school math yet — we're going to take you back to pre-algebra.’ The obvious question is why didn't that happen earlier, so that we didn't waste five, six, seven years of that student's time — and frankly resources and teacher energy? Let's let everyone have a strong foundation.”
Teaching in a mastery-focused way isn’t a new idea, Khan emphasizes.
“This is the way music teachers work with students. If you learn a sport, this is the way that you will learn the sport. The reason why we have a non-mastery approach is that two or three hundred years ago when we did math in public education we had to come up with some method that could scale. If you're one teacher with 30 students, it's logistically difficult, without the help of technology, for different students to master different things at different paces.”
“Now the technology exists,” he said. “That's what Khan Academy exists for. “
Khan acknowledges that there are significant logistical barriers to move from a grade-based system to a mastery-based system. “A lot of the traditional architectures of school are based on seat time or non-mastery based methods. The grade book. The transcript. The CSU’s requirements, based on Carnegie units. [A measure of contact time with an instructor.]
“Today, in most high schools, if I get a B in algebra 2, that is a B forever — even if I then go on and master algebra 2 and get an A in precalculus and get an A in calculus! It's kind of silly.”
He particularly criticized the use of years or units to define educational requirements and credits. “Most of the state university systems, which kind of dictate how the high schools are organized in their states, they'll say you need to take three years of math, you need to take two years of foreign language, etc. What they should say is you need to know math at this level, you need to know a language at this level, you should be able to write at this level.”
Peer interaction can be a useful way for students to learn subjects deeply. At the time of the interview, Khan had just announced Schoolhouse.world, a new program for peer-to-peer online tutoring. Khan invited student leaders to check it out, and emphasized that being a tutor can be great evidence of leadership.
“On Schoolhouse.world, if you certify your knowledge in a domain and then you go on to tutor in it, schools like MIT, University of Chicago, Case Western — it's on their admissions application! They want to know how good of a tutor you are and what you've been certified on.”
“You start very optimistic. The world sobers you — humbles you — but then I think if you stick with it long enough and if you just know you're reading the tea leaves correctly… at some point people will start to notice and bring their energy to what you're trying to do.”
In his interview with Sal, Alvin asked for a “fun fact” that most people wouldn’t know about him. The answer involves a heavy metal concert — view the interview above for the details.
In a subsequent interview for CNN, Fareed Zakaria challenged Khan, whom he called “the King of online learning”, to defend computer-based instruction in the face of big declines in national test scores during the pandemic. Khan agreed that the test score drops were very bad, and specifically highlighted 8th grade math proficiency, which tanked from 34% to 27%. But he cautioned against drawing the wrong lesson.
“Proficiency levels got dramatically worse,” he said, “but they were pretty bad before!” He argued that a factory model of treating all students the same wasn’t working all that well, even before the pandemic.
“Don’t just keep shepherding the kids, lockstep: half the kids are bored, half the kids are lost.” Technology can be a powerful tool, he said, but remote lectures over Zoom aren't the best use of time. “Let them get as much practice as possible on things that are actually going to be useful for them.”
He argued that this technology-assisted approach actually increases the value of human interaction in education. “When Khan Academy is used best, it’s used inside a classroom, with people next to each other, working at their own pace, on things that are relevant to them. The teacher is able to have one-on-one interaction — more human interaction than they would get in a traditional lecture-based classroom.”
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